In 1997, the Max Planck Society (MPS) was the first German scientific organisation to appoint an independent commission of historians to extensively study the history of its predecessor organisation, the Kaiser Wilhelm Society, and its conduct during the National Socialist era.
This project has now been concluded. In 2001, the Max Planck Society apologised to the surviving victims on behalf of the scientists of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society. "We must draw on the lessons from the past and do our utmost to prevent basic research from ever crossing basic ethical boundaries again", emphasises Max Planck President Peter Gruss. This was his motivation for establishing an ethics commission, among other things.
The research program "History of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society in the National Socialist Era" has so far produced 19 books and 28 preprints. The commission was chaired by two historians, Reinhard Rürup (TU Berlin) and Wolfgang Schieder (University of Cologne), who did not belong to the MPS but who were given free access to all archives and unpublished material. The commission looked at, on the one hand, the policy of the general administration of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society and, on the other hand, the research on race and genetics at the KWS institutes, as well as the armament research under the conditions of the wartime economy. Moreover, the historians examined the role of agrarian research for the National Socialist expansion policy and shed light on the role played by Nobel laureate and long-standing President of the Max Planck Society, Adolf Butenandt.
The historians found that scientists from the Kaiser Wilhelm Society had been involved in the National Socialist state’s research, which was essential for the war effort. Often, scientists readily offered their services and worked with the National Socialist state without having been forced to do so. Thus they combined their own research interests with the political and military goals of the regime, for mutual benefit. Most Jewish scientists had been expelled without much resistance in 1933. After Max Planck left his office as President of the KWS in 1937, the general administration did not put up much resistance. In most Kaiser Wilhelm institutes, the transition from the original scientific interests to working with the policies and towards the goals of the National Socialist regime was smooth. Particularly in life sciences and race studies, it is clear that the scientists transgressed ethical boundaries. An unequivocal example was the experiments on humans and unscrupulous handling of human specimens.
As a successor organisation of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society, the Max Planck Society has assumed historical responsibility for these actions. "The most sincere apology is the disclosure of guilt", MPS President Hubert Markl said at the symposium "Biological sciences and experiments on humans at the Kaiser Wilhelm institutes" in 2001, while speaking to survivors of experiments on twins. "Only the perpetrator can really ask for forgiveness. Still, from the bottom of my heart I ask you, the surviving victims, for forgiveness on behalf of those who, irrespective of their reasons, failed to do so themselves". The Max Planck Society also apologised for having too long neglected to shed light on the history of the KWS in the National Socialist era, thereby facing up to their historical responsibility too late.
Until the 1980s, the Max Planck Society continued to remember the excellent scientific work and the Nobel Prizes of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society, without being able to see the transgressions under National Socialism. Instead, the myth of pure basic research was nurtured. This "collective suppression" was assisted by the fact that the protagonists and followers of the Third Reich were not held accountable after 1945, and that expelled scientists mostly did not return to the Max Planck Society. As in many other post-war organisations, despite the new foundation of the Max Planck Society, the year 1945 did not really represent a turning point. The emancipation from the predecessor organisation was slow and met with resistance. In 1990 the time was ripe for Presidents Heinz Staab and Hans Zacher to bury brain specimens taken from concentration camp prisoners and euthanasia victims at the Waldfriedhof cemetery in Munich, as part of a memorial service.
The transgressions have made the MPS much more sensitive to ethical matters. In 2007, the President of the Max Planck Society, Peter Gruss, appointed an ethics council - an expert committee made up of scientists from the MPS, currently chaired by Rüdiger Wolfrum, an expert on international law. It works as an advisory body which takes a stance on issues of scientific ethics. Currently, the ethics council is looking at questions relating to the EU animal protection directive, synthetic biology and nanotechnology. Moreover, in March 2009, the revised "Rules of Good Scientific Practice" were published, which are intended to serve as a guideline for scientific conduct.